I went to Church on Sunday, an event rare enough to record here, since it does take some effort, where I was reminded that it’s going to be Lent again soon. I’ve seen people making statements on their Facebook pages that they’re going to do (or not do) this or that ‘for Lent’. The Christian church has developed a whole theology of abstinence and reflection around Lent in the same way as Muslims have around Ramadan, which practice – although not precedent – is absent in the Gospels. Perhaps that’s unfair. Being personally off the scale in respect of observance for its own sake, I have no quarrel with those who find Lent both purgative and refreshing; a necessary introit to Easter.
I’m often amused to read how pre-Christian festivals were systematically incorporated into annual celebrations – thanks again, Constantine, but Lent is even older than most of the others, it seems. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon Lencten, meaning “spring,” the origins of Lent can be traced back to ancient Babylonian mystery religions. The forty days’ abstinence of Lent was directly borrowed from the Babylonian cult of ‘weeping for Tammuz’ and among pagans, this idea seems to have been an indispensable preliminary to the great annual festival in commemoration of his death and resurrection and whose Feast was usually celebrated in June (also called the “month of Tammuz”). Before giving up personal sins and vices during Lent, the pagans held a wild, “anything goes” celebration to make sure that they got their fair share of debauchery – now celebrated as Mardi Gras. The prophet Ezekiel would have looked down his nose at all that, I am certain.
Lent was held forty days before the feast, “celebrated by alternate weeping and rejoicing.” This is why Lent means “spring”; it took place from spring to early summer.
The Roman church replaced Passover with Easter, moving the Feast of Tammuz to early spring, “Christianizing” it and Lent moved with it.
OK, then. Rather a far cry from the way in which the churches keep the season today. Starting with Ash Wednesday it carries on until Good Friday – ‘good’ in the sense of ‘holy’. I’ve always thought that it should be called ‘karfreitag’ or ‘sorrowful Friday’ then ‘Good’ – or Glorious – Sunday.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of participants in the form of a cross to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. OK, then. My Catholic friends and I amicably disagree, so I’ll keep my idolatry fighting boots in the closet. I shan’t be excessively penitential this year, in common with other years, the prospect of self-flagellation and the cilice not being altogether tempting; I went to an English private school, for Heaven’s sake. I know a man who gave up whisky for Lent, replacing it with cognac. Now, that’s sacrifice.